It could only ‘complement and supplement’ traditional methods of political campaigning

Net-savvy politicians who have taken to the new media, particularly Twitter, see it as a powerful tool to listen to their constituents and stay engaged. But they are well aware of the limits of the reach, and political impact, of the medium.

At a panel discussion at the Big Tent Activate Summit hosted by Google here, Minister of State Shashi Tharoor – an early user of Twitter – said he had predicted in 2009 that within 10 years any serious Indian politician would have to be online. “It is happening even faster than that.”

The medium allowed politicians to address the concerns of the aam aadmi, send messages across without media filter, and aided in a ‘brand-building exercise.’ It also had a ‘ripple effect,’ with the impact of what was happening within the confines of new media going beyond its boundaries, Mr. Tharoor said.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah saw the tool useful in getting across his point of view ‘in the shortest possible time.’ But the traditional method, in which leaders would reach out to the Information Department, which would draft a statement, get it vetted, and then send it out, now appeared time-consuming. [Now] “I know that as soon as I put up something, all television channels will put it on their tickers within a matter of seconds.”

Speaking during a separate session through Google Hangout, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi called it the era of ‘Internet democracy.’ Earlier politicians bombarded citizens with their views and thoughts. “Now citizens have access to a wide range of information and they have avenues to voice their opinion and have a direct say.” This forced politicians to perform and “not just make promises,” he said.

The use of the medium was even greater in societies such as the U.S. Stephanie Cutter, who has worked as senior advisor to President Barack Obama and served in his campaign team, said it was “not possible to run for elected office without the Internet.”

The practice had evolved. During 2004, social media was limited to bloggers and limited fund-raising. In 2008, it was used extensively by citizens to get information on candidates and as an organising tool. “But in 2012, it exploded. We used it to communicate aggressively outside the media filter, raise funds, and organise with those campaigning door-to-door having accurate information about our voters and constituents,” Ms. Cutter said.

Indian politicians were quick to suggest that this remained inconceivable here, given that there was only 12 per cent Internet penetration. “It is irrelevant as a voting tool. If I were to organise a rally using social media, only me, my security detail and some TV crew would be present. There won’t be a single voter,” said Mr. Abdullah.

Mr. Tharoor agreed and called it an ‘add-on’ tool, which could only ‘complement and supplement’ the traditional methods of political campaigning and communication.